Call It Work

“That’s why they call it work.”

You’ve probably heard that expression, often used as a verbal shrug after summarizing something done not by choice but by job requirement. I have to plenty to do by job that’s not by choice, but every once in a while, my job offers a really choice assignment. A recent Wednesday brought one of those.

Because a UTC biologist and a grad student are involved, I went along—for purposes of documenting their work—as a whole passel of academics and state and federal biologists visited the secret location where hundreds of rare white fringeless orchids have been transplanted.

Yes, secret.

Platanthera Integrilabia

That’s because the wild flowers, platanthera integrilabia, also known as “monkeyface” orchids, are so rare they’re on the federal Endangered Species List. The transplanting is part of a long-term study to determine what may be preferable conditions for their viability–basically, research in progress. In an undisclosed location. Unless your work makes it necessary for you to visit.

Truth be told, I’m not sure I could find the site again on my own, but I can tell you it’s in the vast Bridgestone – Firestone Wildlife Management Area that lies where White and Cumberland counties meet at the edge of the Cumberland Plateau. That’s an area I know better than you might expect because it’s basically where I grew up, and it’s just down the road from where I went to 4-H camp every year from age 10 to 16. Having a work-related reason to visit—even if only for a day—made it fun and special to get to go back there.

The origin of the research is TVA’s compliance with the Endangered Species Act when work by the federal utility involves construction or similar work that could disturb wildlife or plant life. The orchids planted at Bridgestone—in an area I grew up calling Scott’s Gulf—were discovered in 2015 on a TVA power line right-of-way now “retired” near Spencer, Tennessee. TVA biologists had to find a suitable habitat for the orchids, which would be killed off by competition from other plants that would grow in as the right-of-way reverts to its natural state.

As you might expect, TVA had to assemble a conservation team for the project. A large team, including experts with the Atlanta Botanical Garden, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Tennessee Department of Conservation and Environment, US Fish and Wildlife Service and researchers at UTC.

Those researchers include distinguished biologist and environmental scientist Dr. Jennifer Boyd and Savanna Wooten, a graduate student pursuing a master’s in biology. Savanna has spent the last two years visiting the site once a month to record data on how the orchids are faring and, as of August 2019, she has completed the 24 months of observation she will document and analyze in her master’s thesis this fall before graduating in December.

Except, ironically, on the August visit by the cadre of experts from TVA, TDEC, TWRA and USFW, Savanna wasn’t able to make the trip from Chattanooga and Dr. Boyd was in Italy. UTC was represented that day by me and my colleague, Will Davis, who recorded interviews and environmental sound for a piece he put together for the National Public Radio station on campus and operated by UTC, WUTC-FM.

Will is an Ohio native who’s lived in Chattanooga a little more than two years. The towns of Dunlap, Spencer and Sparta that I drove us through on the way to the wilderness area all were new to him, but old hat to me. I grew up in Sparta.

Our TVA contact had given us essentially GPS coordinates to find the spot. At one point that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, but the Scott’s Gulf side of nowhere, I stopped at a TWRA equipment shed when I saw a man in uniform there. I told him our business, and he said we were the second party to approach for assistance finding the orchid expedition. The road I wasn’t sure was the right turn a little ways back was, in fact, the turn I should have made.

Then, since we were in the county where I grew up, I had to ask the young man about his people. He’s one of the Underwoods scattered about the area, he told me, and he’d just moved back there from Cassville about six months ago. Cassville? What the, hey, that’s the remote corner of the county where I grew up about 15 miles away! I could have talked a little longer, but we had somewhere to be, so Will and I headed off to meet the experts.

We found them in about 10 minutes. Will’s not an outdoorsy type, and he was dressed in jeans and sneakers—similar to what he wears to work most days. I was in hiking clothes and really glad not to be wearing what I wear to work most days. And I soon realized I was the one and only person in shorts, because everybody else knew the propensity for ticks—big ones, medium ones, and little-bitty sesame seed-sized ones. Oh, well. Nothing to do but put on my hiking boots and keep a sharp eye.

In about 10 minutes of walking through very dense foliage, we came upon what looked from some distance like PVC pipe-versions of traps I’ve seen set for wild hogs in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our leader, TVA biologist Adam Dattilo, explained those are “exostructures” built to both mark and protect the rare orchids.

And then, yes, there they were! Tiny little bunches of blooms spilling from a delicate green stalk about a foot tall.

The exostructures varied from solely a PVC frame, to frames with their top halves covered in chicken wire, to those covered entirely in chicken wire. The variations were to determine how the plants fared with no protection from herbivores—such as rabbits and deer—to partial to complete protection. Some were planted amid dense foliage, some not. Some were set within shady areas thick with tall trees, some in more open, sunlit areas. Some were in lower-lying, more-saturated plots, some were higher and drier.

The researchers plan to visit the area next year to collect more data. Then they’ll determine a schedule to visit the site every few years.

Will and I were the only non-scientists in the group, save one: TWRA technician Paul Stockton. I was delighted to meet him and learn he’s a Sparta boy. He lost his job when a local factory shut down and was exceptionally fortunate to have been hired by TWRA.

Paul and me

Our “who’s your people” conversation led to the discovery that he is the grandson of a farmer next door to the farm where I grew up, he knows my younger brother, Jack, and that Paul would be attending a party the coming Saturday night at my cousins’ Lee and Lori Broyles’ house. It’s nice to be back on the home stomping grounds and meet someone you feel like you already know and learn good things have happened for him.

All together, we walked about three miles through the woods, meandering among various plots of the 400 or so orchids. After a couple of hours, Will and I had what we needed, and young Paul was designated to walk us back to the car. I was sure I could find it and told Paul we’d be good, but he insisted.

As it turned out, without marked trails and any bearings, I was completely wrong about which way to go. And thankful for Paul as our guide. He saw us off by asking if we knew about the Welch Point Overlook. Nope.

Then he told us how to find it—drive a bit further into the wilderness preserve, look for the sign at a small parking area, then walk about 500 yards.

I would have had no idea, and it was a stunning end to a great morning. The walk from the car was maybe the shortest hike I’ve ever made and probably Will’s first. The clouds had begun clearing, and the view was spectacular. We agreed it would have been a tragedy to have missed it.

I’d say that was true of the entire day.

With my colleague, Will, at Welch Point Overlook

 

Cold Mountain

“Cold Mountain is an extraordinary novel about a soldier’s perilous journey back to his beloved at the end of the Civil War. At once a magnificent love story and a harrowing account of one man’s long walk home…”

That’s from a review of the 1997 book that was made into a popular movie with Nicole Kidman and Jude Law in the lead roles. That’s not the Cold Mountain Bill and I experienced.

It’s understood that the aforementioned novel is a work of historical fiction, a story told with accurate period details of people who were not real in a place that was real. Still is. The real Cold Mountain is a 6,000-foot peak in the Appalachians of western North Carolina. Today, many a hiker takes it on and, I can now tell you from experience, ascending Cold Mountain makes for a long walk, no matter the distance.

What drew us there, originally, was a planned outing by the Chattanooga Hiking Club. We are now dues-paying members, and the group has a website with a schedule of group hikes for the next three months or so. Small numbers of mostly retired members go on short, local hikes around Chattanooga two or three times a week. Saturday and weekend excursions are more ambitious, both in travel to reach them and in trail difficulty.

Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain on Saturday, July 13 had been on the calendar for weeks. I’ll admit when I first saw it, I didn’t actually know it was a real place—I’d just assumed it was also a fictional setting for the book. I was intrigued by the idea of experiencing the real place, and it promised to give your money’s worth for effort. Ten miles round trip, with a 3,000-foot elevation gain. Almost exactly the same as hiking Alum Cave trail to Mount LeConte in the Smokies—which I’ve done at least 20 times over the years—so I figured I was capable.

I spoke with the Chattanooga Hiking Club member who was to lead the Cold Mountain hike, booked a room in the hotel where the group was staying and looked forward to the new adventure. Then, about two weeks earlier, word was sent that Cold Mountain was off for the time being. A group outing to do a section of the Benton-MacKaye trail had experienced such brutal heat combined with trail difficulty that the decision was made not to attempt Cold Mountain in July, but to put it off until cooler weather.

Naturally, I wanted to press ahead, so Bill and I kept our hotel reservations and our plans to visit Waynesville, NC and Cold Mountain over July 12-13.

Out of a very healthy respect for a daunting elevation gain and challenging trail, I began working on challenging hikes closer to home—see “Kicked by the North Chick” posted here earlier—and I took inventory of what we had and what we might need to hike Cold Mountain. A trip to REI resulted in some new water sandals and a synthetic, tech-fabric pair of shorts and a shirt for Bill; and an amazing waterproof plastic holder for my phone that would allow the phone to function even inside the plastic and with a neck cord to keep it from getting lost.

Just as the hiking club had intended, we went to dinner in Waynesville at the Sweet Onion. We allowed ourselves to carb load, munched on small, pre-meal biscuits; Bill had mashed potatoes with his salmon; and I had rice noodles with Thai peanut sauce and what unfortunately turned out to be unchewable sliced chicken breast.

We found a Mast General Store just around the corner from the restaurant, and I bought a brand-new, waterproof, rip-proof trail map showing Cold Mountain in the Pisgah National Forest.

Also just as the hiking club had intended, we had breakfast—and a few more carbs—at the hotel Saturday morning. Fifteen miles later, we were at the Art Loeb trailhead to Cold Mountain in the Shining Rock Wilderness area of North Carolina. The temperature was comfortable, birdsong echoed all over the woods, and sounds of kids having fun rose up from the adjacent Boy Scout Camp Daniel Boone. “Good job, North Carolina,” I thought, “paying homage to a legendary Tennessean.”

Don’t come at me about Daniel Boone being born in Pennsylvania. He got out of there, didn’t he?

But I digress…

About 9 a.m., we shoved off, and about 9:04 a.m., we were navigating the first switchbacks. When a trail starts with switchbacks, you know it’s going to be a serious climb. Which you would have expected from a 3,000’ start to a 6,000’ summit in about five miles.

Swinging over blowdown: Nothin’ to it but to do it.

We were sweaty and had to stop to catch our breath at mile 1, which climbed 800 feet up and took us 59 minutes to complete.

Mile two leveled out considerably, gaining only 200 feet and taking us 28 minutes to complete.

Mile three angled up again, with a 400-foot climb and took me 31 minutes to complete. I say me because Bill clocked out around the 2.5-mile point. The humidity and steep stepping ended his run—though he’d never expected nor intended to go the whole way, and he’d done a great, big chunk of difficult.

We had begun encountering increasing piles of blow-down on the trail approaching the halfway point and, in general, the trail became rougher and more overgrown as it climbed.

I don’t do blow-down as athletically as Bill can.

I reached mile 4 in about 40 minutes, slowed down by climbing another 400 feet and stopping to put gaiters on over my boots because of the overgrown conditions and sprinkling rain that had begun. Of course, Mother Nature also had begun clearing her throat—rolling out some impressive thunder—by then, too.

Mile 5 was back down to a one-hour pace, owing to a 550-foot elevation gain and the start of an actual thunderstorm. I was hiking through heavy forest canopy, which kept the rain off for some time, and I’d gotten into my heavy-duty poncho before the real rain reached me. Not that it mattered. I was so hot and sweaty when I put on the poncho I don’t know how much wetter I could have felt if the rain had drenched me.

But here is where I ran into a couple more serious considerations:

First, this hike was described as 10 miles, round-trip, five up, five down. Yet, while FitBit showed I had traveled five miles, there was sign of the summit. So, I’ve got to check the stride length FitBit is showing for me and tinker to get it more accurate.

Second, I was getting pretty hungry and the plan of holding out to eat when I got to the summit was seeming less likely. Not to mention it was well past noon and, distance aside, I knew I still had about 800 more feet of climb, regardless. That takes a lot out of you, and Bill was again waiting for my return back at the car.

I decided to press on for a little longer, until FitBit told me I was at six miles. If I wasn’t at the summit by then, I didn’t plan to continue.

At 2 p.m., I hit the FitBit-measured six-mile mark. The skies were pouring. Thunder was rumbling in every direction. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and was getting very hungry. A nice log aside the trail practically said, “Sit here, eat your lunch, watch if the rain stops, then see what time it is.”

The log seemed to read my mind. I spent about 20 minutes eating and resting, with no let-up in the rain. There are people who don’t believe I’m capable of this, but I actually decided to bail on the summit.

It was practically 2:30 p.m., I had something like six miles to do if I turned back right where I was and, even if I reached the summit in just another 30 minutes—not likely with another 500 feet of elevation to climb, according to my altitude gizmo—chances were good of being able to see nothing except the raincloud I’d be standing in.

Yes, we had come for the weekend for the purpose of ascending Cold Mountain. Yes, it was hard as #$%& just reaching the point where I sat. And believe it or not, I’ve never yet ended up in a bind on a hike that I saw coming. Continuing to climb in foul weather at 2:30 p.m. and leaving my husband, with no means of communication, waiting at the trailhead well into dark wasn’t necessary and easily avoidable this time.

Besides, I just might try again with the hiking club, and I left myself the best part still to see.

I made pretty good time descending, though with everything wet or rain-slick, there was a bit of treachery here and there.

What’s waiting for you if you’re willing to go look.

Here I have to say that rumors of all young people falling short of one’s own generation are greatly exaggerated. Even at my best pace, which wasn’t bad at averaging 20-minute miles in those conditions, I was overtaken by a group of about five 20-something boys. For a long way they were behind me where the trail was a single-file only tunnel of rhododendron.

I waited for a wider spot where I could step aside and let them pass. When it came, every one of them greeted me or said “Thank you,” and the last of the bunch said, “Ma’am, would you like someone to hike with you?” I told him I was just fine and to head on.

After an hour or so, another male hiker who also appeared to be in his 20s caught up with me. I stepped aside at the first opportunity, and he made polite conversation about the rude weather, thanked me, then asked if I would like for him to stay back with me. No, no, I told him I was fine. Though I’ve never felt so old as having two separate young hikers offer to escort me—I must be slower and older-looking than I realize. As the solo young hiker with what could have been a mini-fridge on his back almost as big as he was moved easily and disappeared quickly around a turn, I also felt old.

Filthy gaiters, muddy boots, a good day still

By 5:30 p.m., I was back at our SUV, it was no longer raining and the sun was out. Nice ending a long hike before dark. Bill was pleasantly surprised, too, and really surprised when I told him I’d made the decision to turn back.

He told me I must have been motoring down the mountain. I didn’t understand and asked what made him say that.

“This group of five young guys just finished here about 5 o’clock, and I asked if they had seen my wife who was hiking solo,” Bill said. “ ‘Oh, yes sir, she was heading down the mountain at a good pace when we caught up with her. She’s probably about 30 minutes behind us.’ And they were right on the money. Here you are.”

Finally, about the relationship between Cold Mountain the place and Cold Mountain the book. The author, Charles Frazier, reportedly based the novel on local history and family stories passed down by his great-great-grandfather. The story is about a wounded Confederate soldier who walks away from the war and back home to his sweetheart. I’ve seen the movie and read the book specifically in anticipation of the hike, hoping for the possibility of interesting detail about the setting.

Truth be told, there was a lot of detail, and much of it bleak, heavy and, after a while, repetitious. As someone who’s logged hundreds of miles through the Appalachians, I recognized and could picture most every type of scenery, forestation, plant and weather Frazier described. But by the end of the book, I’d had enough of grim gore and devastating disease.

So, let me say that, even though I didn’t make it to my destination on Cold Mountain, it was a wonderful experience that has washed the dark taste of the book from my mouth.

Given the chance to be part of a group outing, I’ll go back.

Kicked by the North Chick

North Chickamauga Creek State Natural Area is a wild patch of public land surrounding a deep gorge that dives down and across the boundary between Sequatchie and Hamilton counties.

It features a rugged hike over about a 10-mile section of the Cumberland Trail, so named becuse it runs along the eastern escarpment of the Cumberland Plateau. The trail–a public park being developed by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation–currently spans more than 200 miles of its planned 300-mile length.

On the first Saturday in July, I was looking for a bit of a challenge in preparation for a big challenge upcoming in a hike I’ve planned to do on the second Saturday in July. The 10-mile North Chickamauga Creek Gorge hike promised a challenge. It delivered, and then some.

The Hamilton County end of the trail segment is in Soddy-Daisy, just about 15 minutes from my house. The other end is in Dunlap, in the central time zone and four-wheel drive zone.

Another reason I chose the location was that I had heard about “blue holes,” or natural swimming pools along that part of Chickamauga Creek. I was curious to see them, and the whole area would be new territory.

Last time I’d be clean on this hike.

It was hot the day I went. I don’t just mean summer hot, I mean 90-degree heat and humidity that seemed just as high. I broke a sweat putting on my hiking boots in the trailhead parking lot. I had completely filled the three-liter water reservoir in my backpack, brought along bottled drinks for afterward in a cooler, and I had plenty of food, trail bars and Clif shots. The great majority of people I saw at the trailhead were there to find the blue holes. I think I was the only person heading onto the trail in something other than flip flops and swimming attire.

Bill was there to drop me off, venture up the trail a ways himself, and then pick me up at the other end in Dunlap.

Within the first half-mile of the trail, I saw a couple of concrete picnic tables and multiple paths worn down to the water at big rocks already decorated with beach towels and lawn chairs.

The trail is rated “difficult.” That may be an understatement.

Some combination of steepness of climb, roughness of trail, elevation change and water crossings is typically involved assessing degree of difficulty. In this case, all those elements were present at challenging levels.

The trail gains and loses 500 feet of elevation, twice. You climb up to the peak elevation, then descend into the gorge and the water. Then you climb back out again. There are steep slopes, and a lot of rugged rock scrambles. In a couple of places that would be virtually impassable otherwise, there are wooden stairs and a wooden ladder—built by hardworking trail volunteers. I went at a time when rain hadn’t been overly plentiful, and the creek crossing still was a handful.

More to come about that in a minute.

Red-faced and sweaty at the first climb.

The trail passes remnants of former coal mines. It goes through the foundations of an old coal tipple, where mined coal once was hauled to that point, separated by size in the tipple, and then hauled away. I saw old concrete pillars, and they stood in what almost looked like black sand with the appearance of very small chips of coal.

Shortly after that, I found myself at the entrance to an abandoned mine in the face of an escarpment. It looks like a deep cave, but it’s an almost perfectly square opening maybe 30 feet high by 30 feet wide, right at ground level. Reportedly, it’s only about 35 feet deep, but I can’t tell you from experience. I stood there and looked at my reflection in the black, standing water, and that was plenty close enough. Not to mention entry is prohibited both for human safety concerns and for concerns about white-nose syndrome, a disease decimating native bat populations.

As I climbed, I got amazing aerial views of the gorge. Since it’s summer, the area also is heavily forested. By my guess, it’s also not heavily traveled. Where it plateaued, it’s covered in knee- to waist-high growth and grasses. I used my hiking poles to prod ahead of my feet to identify critters before stepping on them. Fortunately, I’m not aware of any that I disturbed.

The trail is marked with white blazes, but there was a fair amount of blow-down and, in a couple or so places where I had to look hard to find the blazes, I discovered them on fallen trees.

As if that wasn’t enough, there was also some really rocky terrain. The very rocky water crossing, I’m guessing, could be treacherous, if not impossible, in rainy weather.

Which brings me to that awful moment when I said to myself, “Oh, no. Not again.”

As in, “Oh no, not again have I climbed and descended a killer trail only to arrive at a water crossing where I cannot find where to pick up the trail on the other side of the water!”

Yeah, I got to have that experience on a rainy hike almost five years to the day in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Yeah, I was hiking solo then, too, and I went five miles down a gash in the mountains to a roiling creek that I managed to cross and then couldn’t find the trail. Yeah, I finally resigned myself to my only option being to back track up the steep slope to where I’d started. Yeah, my husband was waiting for me where I was supposed to emerge, a few miles away, and yeah, there was no cell signal so I had no way to let him know I’d had to change plan.

So. Much. Sweating.

And yeah, as 6 p.m. was approaching and sunlight was beginning to depart, there I was at the bottom of the North Chick with no other option but to retrace my steps. All five miles of them. Oh well, the elevation gain was going to be no more than I would have had if I’d been able to finish the trail on the Dunlap end. Where Bill was waiting. At least–at the very least–I had discovered, cell signal was still present up to about two miles from the trail head. I should be able to call Bill when I was about 40-50 minutes from finishing, so he might have enough time to drive BACK FROM DUNLAP to be at the place where I’d started about noon.

Yes, I had a trail map on my phone. Yes, I had a written description of the turns and landmarks. Yes, I had a compass that I used to try to orient myself at the creek bed to figure out which way was south to the junction with another creek, and which way was east, to proceed past that junction and then go upstream where the trail continued, where I was supposed to see a waterfall adjacent to an “exceptional campsite.” But no, after almost an hour of walking and compassing and looking, I could not find where to pick up the trail across the water.

If you’re ever there, you might find it surprisingly free of insects. That might be from the contribution of my almost-full bottle of Deep Woods Off with Ebola Protector to the River Gods. It fell from my pack as I bent down to survey the width of a gap between boulders and wondered if I could jump across them without breaking my hiking poles or my legs. I went a different way, after saying aloud, “Well, I guess I’ve held the vampires off as long as I can. Gonna be a fun five miles straight up outta here in the woods as dark comes and I have nothing on my skin but sweat.”

Was I lost? No, I was not lost.

Lost is when you don’t know where you are. I just couldn’t figure out how to get where I’d planned to go.

Between the heat and the elevation gain I’d already climbed, it was sheer will, an apple and a packet of Clif gel that got me back out of there. Just as I reached the plateau–seeing spots from either low blood sugar or mosquito-induced blood loss–my phone rang. It rang before I could finish texting Bill that I’d had to turn back and he needed to pick me up where he’d dropped me off. It was Bill calling and the first words out of his mouth where, “Where are you?!” Because, you know, by then it was about 8 p.m.

That’s probably not the kindest, most tender conversation we’ve ever had, but Bill was on his way from Dunlap after we finished. I fumbled in my pack for another energy snack, and I noticed the water I drank from the tube to wash it down was getting toward the end of my supply. But I couldn’t stand still long and ponder that, lest the twin-engine bloodsuckers pick me up and haul me away.

I pushed myself to move as fast as I could, but dark was coming just as fast. So were all those chunky rocks and roots I’d crossed earlier in the day when I was fresh. If not for high-top hiking boots, I’d have rolled my ankles at least seven times.

Yes, I had a light. Yes, I was using it.

Then, I noticed more light. The kind made by cars driving on the twisting road uphill from me–which told me I was within reach of the paved road that led to the trailhead where Bill would have been parked. I called him and told him–at 9 pm and near-complete darkness–I was bailing on the ankle-buster and scrambling up the embankment leading to the road to the trail. He was going to get in the car and start driving my way. I planned to be walking on asphalt and waiting for him.

Ditching the trail to climb through brush and bramble to reach the road shoulder, I was very glad to have my handy-dandy little super-duper light. It worked great–I know, because of how perfectly it illuminated the poison ivy I was splitting wide open. Oh, well, I’ve never been allergic before, and I was willing to take my chances.

Bill, of course, had intended on being helpful and had actually walked a good bit up the trail hoping to meet me and help me if I needed carrying or shooting by the time he found me. Which meant that I actually reached the car before he did, but not by much. Maybe only 100 yards.

I was bleeding from a shin (briers), sooty-bottomed (old coal mine country, remember) and limping a little from getting a foot trapped in rocks at the water crossing. Bill was bleeding from both knees and a forearm–his short jaunt up the trail intending to meet me, without a light to carry, had already cost him a tumble at a root/stump/rock. Seems we’d both gotten kicked by the North Chick.

I had worn 100 percent synthetic, tech fabric clothing, and it was still 100 percent drenched in sweat.

FitBit said I logged 13 miles and burned 3,500 calories.

After our 15-minute drive home and a shower at least that long, I emerged dressed and Bill commented on the “sunburn” I must have gotten on my face. I went back to look in the mirror.

Nope, I told him, my rosy jaws were just evidence of red-faced exertion. I still hadn’t cooled off. But I caught a lucky break on the poison ivy.

Still not allergic. So you didn’t completely beat me, North Chick.